Snow Bunting Image

The Top 5 Birds to Watch for This Winter

The Top 5 Birds to Watch for This Winter


By Avery T Phillips

Winter bird watching is always a treat for birders due to predictable migration patterns. Gregarious bird species migrate in flocks, creating beautiful and easily identifiable displays during the colder months. Winter bird watching can be chilly but well worth bearing the lower temperatures. Grab your phone and BirdsEye, and ensure that car is ready for the travels — put your all-weather tires on, check your spare has air, get an oil change and hit the road.

Local wildlife and bird reserves are spectacular places to visit with a thermos full of coffee and a day of birding. The following are the top five birds worth traveling for to see this winter.

1.   Snow Bunting

photo of snow buntingThe Snow Bunting calls the arctic tundra home during the summer months but travels to the northern United States during the winter. These sparrow-sized birds build their nests in rock crevices that they line with the grasses, fur, moss and feathers they find. They travel and forage in large numbers, making them highly visible in large open fields.

Females camouflage easily with the winter snow with their white chest and light brown wings. In the fall, you will see the males molting to achieve their striking black and white breeding colors. They will rub their wing tips against the snow to shed their brown tips to become completely black on their back and wings, keeping their pure white chest intact.

2. Evening Grosbeak

This finch can typically be seen as a flash of yellow against green conifer forests of the north throughout the summer. As the weather starts to turn colder they move to the southern states in search of food and warmer temperatures.

These big-chested finches can often be spotted at your bird feeder for those that live in the southern half of the states. The males are strikingly colored with a bright yellow eyebrow streak and body. The females’ coloring is more subtle, but they do have a flamboyant green beak to marvel at. Enjoy the sightings of these birds when you can because they have become increasingly rare as their numbers have been steadily dropping for years.

3. Snowy Owl

Large irruptions of this majestic bird occur every 3 to 5 years — the last big irruption was in 2013-2014, where they came down from the arctic to areas as far south as Florida. What makes the sighting of this owl noteworthy is that they are the largest of the owl family (by weight). They have catlike eyes and have been made popular with children through the Harry Potter films.

They travel south from their remote breeding grounds of the arctic to hunt in the northern half of the states. It can be difficult to spot an older male in a snowy landscape as they become paler and almost entirely white as they mature. The females tend to have a more salt-and-pepper coloring that makes them more available to the birding eye.

4. Northern Goshawk

At the top of the food chain and an indicator species, these birds can be seen year round in the Rockies but tend to be more active in the winter as food becomes scarce. They frequent the mid to northern portion of the Rocky Mountains. This predatory bird is one of the larger species of hawks and feeds on rabbits, squirrels and other birds found in the Rockies.

If you are wanting to catch a sight of a Norther Goshawk, look up. You will typically find them in the canopy of conifer and boreal forests searching for prey. Up there you will find these steel-grey winged birds with gleaming red eyes. Due to their speed and maneuverability, watching them hunt is an impressive show of skill and precision.

5. Snow Geese

These geese will likely be found congregating in the same places as their more common relative, the Canadian Goose. You can find this abundant species in colonies in many different areas throughout North America. They are most often found in western California, the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, the coast from New Jersey to North Carolina, Iowa, Nebraska and throughout the southwest.

When these high-flying birds fill the sky, they look like large snowflakes about to come raining down upon the earth. This species is dimorphic and comes in two different colors: blue and white. The dark allele (blue) is dominant to the light (white). Once you catch sight of a flock, you can sit and enjoy them for quite some time. They are a foraging species and will spend an enduring length of time in a single area before moving on.

Staying at Home

If you don’t feel like traveling for this year’s fall and winter bird watching, simply travel to your backyard. Wild birds appreciate the feeders that you set up in your yard and will likely visit them to stockpile on energy reserves before making their migration south. You may be lucky enough to live in an area that you can see one of the five birds listed above from your kitchen window.

Backyard feeders are also helpful to migratory birds passing through when food sources start to become scarce and provide a readily available, nutrient-dense meal. If you create a continuous supply, birds will imprint on the location and return in the fall or keep around winter species all season long.

Some of the best items to include in your backyard feeder during the fall and winter are:

  • Nuts
  • Nyjer
  • Millet
  • Corn
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Suet

Until Next Year

You can plan out your route to move across the northern United States using BirdsEye to catch a sight of all five of the wintering birds that come to spend their time there. When you return from your trip in the late fall and early winter, make sure to winterize your RV, car or truck so that you are ready to hit the road in time to catch the spring migration. Happy winter trails and bird watching!